Movies · Reviews

Toronto After Dark 2016 Day Two Has Fun With Comically Corrupt Cops and a Vengeful Tumor

By  · Published on October 15th, 2016

We take a look at War on Everyone and Let Her Out.

Genre film festivals are often among my favorites because they focus on the kind of movies typically absent from theaters – the odd, the disturbing, the foreign. Film lovers in Toronto know what I’m talking about as they’re now on day two of the 11th Annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival.

Nine nights of features and shorts celebrating the dark and the weird, and while I’m not there physically I’m there in spirit. The three films playing tonight are War on Everyone, Let Her Out, and an encore screening of Under the Shadow. My reviews of the first two are below.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016 runs October 13–21, follow our coverage here.

War on Everyone

The tone and temperature of John Michael McDonagh’s (Calvary, The Guard) latest film is established almost immediately as our two protagonist detectives chase a suspect mime with their car. The silent perp is on foot, and though he surrenders they decide to answer the age-old question regarding whether or not a mime makes a sound if you hit him with a car.

I’ll leave the answer to that particular mystery for you to discover, but it’s made clear that War on Everyone is a movie without consequence or weight. Its minor grace comes in the form of a strong leads, but they’re not enough to distract from the realization that the “everyone” of the title includes comedy, character, and the audience itself.

Terry (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob (Michael Peña) are New Mexico cops with a pretty standard routine. They blackmail, hustle, and/or rob every crook they come in contact with, and while you’d think an arrest record low in actual arrests would be a problem their lieutenant (Paul Reiser) has apparently been pretty forgiving on that front. He draws the line at claims of brutality though, but losing their jobs would be the least of their concerns. They’ve got a line on the biggest score of their lives, but there’s every chance they might lose their lives in the process.

The problem here isn’t the setup as McDonagh’s script hits some familiar beats of antihero cops and comical corruption, but viewers are left again and again with the realization that nothing here matters. The characters are cartoons, both cops and crooks, and all of them feel exaggerated poorly for effect. There’s a reason buddy cop movies typically feature one nut and one straight man— think Lethal Weapon, 48 Hrs, or McDonagh’s own The Guard – as it gives the gags a reactionary wall to bounce off. Here though both Terry and Bob are absolute over-the-top pricks and borderline imbeciles.

Some laughs seep through, but they’re exceptions to McDonagh’s new rule of throwing every imaginable offense at the screen in the hope that some will land positively. The pair and the film itself poke fun at and insult a wide swath of minorities, body types, sexual orientations, and more, and while there’s room for that in entertainment it’s done here with little to no regard for nuance or actual comedy. (One particularly egregious example? The posh villain is also a pedophile. Ha!) It’s almost a spoof, and had it crossed that line into Loaded Weapon territory it might have found better footing for the comedy, but as it stands it’s just a steady stream of rude behavior that McDonagh hopes will eventually grow endearing or funny.

War on Everyone does neither.

The abrasive attempts at comedy and lack of engaging character/story beats almost rise to the level of passable entertainment thanks in large part to the two leads. Most of their dialogue fails to land, but there’s no denying the comic skills of both actors. Peña has been showing his worth as a funny man for a few years now, most effectively as a supporting player in last year’s Ant-Man and The Martian. This is something relatively newer for Skarsgård though, and he shows a surprising enthusiasm for both the material and the attitude. The supporting cast features familiar faces – Theo James, Caleb Landry Jones, Tessa Thompson – but it’s Thompson you can’t help but feel bad for as half her screen time seems to consist of close-ups of her ass.

McDonagh’s Calvary remains the best film of 2014, and while it too features crassness, dark humor, and violence it does so with wit, depth, and humanity. Are those characteristics necessary in every movie, let alone a buddy cop comedy? No, but any one of the three would have made this a war worth fighting.

Let Her Out

A young prostitute turns tricks out of a shady motel, but one night after closing both her legs and her front door a stranger arrives looking to score. He leaves her pregnant and afraid, and as the due date approaches the distraught woman pierces her swollen belly with a knife. She dies, but the baby lives.

Years later young Helen (Alanna LaVierge) has made a temporary home in the same motel where her mother died. She finds comfort in her best friend Molly (Nina Kiri) and her job as a bike messenger, but her life takes another dark turn when a car accident leaves her in the hospital. They discover a tumor in her brain, a mass of flesh that began life as a twin before being absorbed into Helen in the womb. Her behavior begins to change for the worse as blackouts and violent episodes become the norm. The accident has renewed her unborn sister’s will to live, and she’s ready for her coming out party.

Director Cody Calahan’s third feature is a bleak tale of a young woman in distress, and it’s absolutely uninterested in pulling punches or softening the blow. It sets up a difficult protagonist only to tear her down, and while it’s a flawed watch it highlights Calahan as a director to watch.

Let Her Out is oppressively dark at times – in theme and content, but also visually as Helen’s descent keeps her in sleazy, shadowed parts of the city. The streets she rides, Molly’s apartment, the desolate motel itself – there’s a threatening stillness to it all that Helen’s agitated behavior quickly disrupts.

She’s brisk and damaged, and while we never quite understand what drew her back to the motel it’s a decision birthed in the internal logic of a troubled soul. Her behavior makes her a difficult character to like, but it’s less a fault of Adam Seybold’s script than a risky choice. It doesn’t fully succeed, but it’s a change of pace for a genre and setup that typically gives viewers a sunny protagonist as a shorthand for our concern before challenging them – here it’s viewers who are challenged to care about a tragic figure whose troubles are only just beginning.

The first hour or so is something of a struggle in that regard as viewers feel a few steps ahead of Helen and are left to watch some repetitive behaviors and scenes before she catches on to things. Cheap scares don’t help matters as loud noises and obvious camera angles are used to tweak jumps that never succeed. The redundancies and dimly-lit surroundings threaten a dullness, but LeVierge and Kiri’s performances keep our attention. One girl spiraling into a personal hell, the other trying desperately to hold on to her friend – it feels at times like Molly is the “good” twin in a game of tug-of-war to the tumorous “bad” one.

It’s an occasional slog getting there, but the third act comes alive as Let Her Out shifts into visually disturbing body horror. Like a less genre-oriented or stylish mash-up of The Dark Half and Starry Eyes, the film channels a desperate darkness within trying its best to escape the fleshy coil it calls its temporary home. This isn’t fun, energetic horror – it’s bleak and tragic. Enter at your own risk.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2016 runs October 13–21, follow our coverage here.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.